Time with Tom: Another Perspective on the University of Dallas President

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    By Meaghan Colvin
    Contributing Writer

    In the northwest corner of Carpenter Hall, there is a room that shines a radiant light. Over the past four years, that room remained a mystery to me. I never knew who occupied it, but I witnessed the glow. It wasn’t until a recent meeting in Carpenter that I learned the light streamed from President Tom Keefe’s office

    It’s early morning, and not many are wandering around campus. I feel completely unprofessional walking into the Presidential Office wearing shorts and sandals. But I seriously doubt that I will be able to meet with the president of the University of Dallas on a Monday. Surely there’s no room for me to sit down and talk with him.

    To my surprise, Keefe himself sets up a meeting time. “It’s a busy morning and I have a meeting. How much time do you need?”

    I’m floored. Meeting with the president cannot be this simple. “Uh..10 minutes, maybe?”

    “I can give you 20. Can you come back at 10:15?”

    That’s not even an hour away. I don’t even have my questions prepared. But even I know it’s now or never. I run to the Cap Bar and scribble questions.

    Less than an hour later, I enter Keefe’s office. He wears his glasses and pours over a passage from the letters of St. Paul, specifically Galatians 3. In between meetings, he has been attempting to find the perfect passage for Convocation on Thursday; he has been on a mission to find it.

    Just as I was about to take a seat, the president gets a phone call. It’s Bishop Farrell. I take my cue, excuse myself, and leave his office.

    When I return minutes later, I sit down again. The wall facing me is covered with books. I spot The Iliad and a biography on the country’s first president, George Washington. There’s a Cardinals baseball cap resting on one shelf, and pictures adorn them as well. There’s a cup of coffee sitting on his desk, along with clock and the crusader sword. Those are three things that I image are important to Keefe: the use of time, the love of UD, and the need for caffeine.

    “So, what’s up?”

    I reply, “I want to take the next 20 minutes to talk with you about your time at the University of Dallas.”

    “Sure. What do you want to know?”

    I start by asking him about the misconceptions UD students may have about the role of the president.

    He responds, “I think that there is a misconception about the role of the president. Many believe that the president is too powerful. But there are individuals and groups that have specific roles.” As he explains the roles performed by certain individuals, such as the provost and his academic duties, Keefe plays with his stainless steel pocket knife. I have a feeling that this was not the conversation he was expecting to have Monday morning. He gives a light laugh, and says, “I am playing with my pocketknife. Ha. The thing is, people love easy answers to difficult questions.”

    With this in mind, I ask him about how he thinks students would describe the role of the University president.

    “Students see the president as someone who serves as a facilitator to solve problems. The thing is, the president has the access, not the power. A university president is the highest profile figurehead, particularly as it relates to the university. Ten to fifteen years down the road, you will be able to recount certain professors–the Eileen Gregorys, the Scott Criders, and the Susan Hanssens–who stood before and taught you in the classroom. But you won’t remember much about who the president was.

    “People seem to believe the president is more powerful than he actually is. My job is to manage the institution and ensure that that this environment is fair and safe. All of these things multiply responsibilities that take time. I think that it is sad that I don’t know the students as much as I would like to. One really does fall in love with the personality of the students at the University of Dallas. They fall in love with their craft, with their humility, with their joy in life. It really is a neat combination.”

    But, how would you describe the role of the university president?

    “I see myself as the dad. I see myself as the one responsible to pay the bills and keep everyone feeling safe and happy. I need to put food on the table and consider the long-term effects of this institution It is required of me to make sure this environment is safe and nurturing. I don’t know if that sounds paternalistic or chauvinistic.”

    To me, it sounds like the former. At age 59, Keefe knows a thing or two after raising two children of his own.

    He continues, “There’s this quote from the Benedictine order…”

    Something that I have noticed from the past two years is that Keefe likes his quotes. Everyone else likes them, too. But he cannot remember the exact words from St. Benedict. He gently swings his chair from his desk over to his computer and goes to Google to find the exact phrase from the Benedictine order. While he searches a few links and websites, I notice that his computer stand serves as a microscopic technology outlet: here rests his pink nano ipod, the large office phone, and an ipad. He stares at the screen with intensity as he slowly types. Nothing to be found from the search. There is a silence in the room, but Keefe breaks it.

    “Feel free to ask me any questions.”

    What are your favorite memories from the past 2 ½ years at UD. Thinking for a moment, he continues to stare at the computer screen. He admits that there isn’t one singular episode that stands out; rather, it’s the affection that he has received from “the students that I have gotten to know. It’s the little things, like an invitation to a wedding, or the student who sits in my office and cries. Here, I feel valued as a human being. I feel like I am being embraced.”

    He turns towards me, “Meaghan, every human being has two great desires: To be liked; I lived on campus for five months, and the students seemed to grow to like me. And the other desire is to be needed. I feel that I am needed at the University of Dallas. I like that I’m making a contribution. It can be anything as simple as a smile from a student. You’d be amazed what a difference that can make in an educator’s life. It’s worth more to us than anything we get paid.”

    Next question.

    “Can you walk me through a day in the life of the president?”

    “There are a lot of meetings. It’s providing direction. It’s making decisions. It’s planning for the future. It’s reaching out to supporters.”

    He provides a run-down on his Monday. There are thousands of little tasks to complete. Keefe admits that one of his strong personality traits is his decisiveness. He compares it to a take-home test, one where you have all the notes and materials in front of you. “At some point,” he says, “you have to stop doing the research and take the test.”

    I change the topic drastically because I notice what little time I have left. I wonder what the president does with his free time — if there is such a thing. When I ask Keefe about this, he sounds surprised. “Oh, well,” he begins…

    “My wife and I enjoy going to art shows. I have two great kids. I read a great deal — I like histories and mysteries the best. I have the best dog.”

    What kind?

    “She’s a yellow lab named Bridget. Named for St. Bridget, I have two cats–Reilly and Sophie.” He laughs, “They are not named after saints.”

    “I do my own yard work. I have been trying to get more exercise.” Over the weekend, he went biking.

    And his favorite art? “I like evocative art, but I don’t have a favorite kind or a favorite artist. I know my favorite song, but not that.” OK, what is your favorite song? “I really like Big Band Music. I like Artie Shaw and the Mills Brothers. Paper Doll is one of my favorites.”

    And what about your attitude towards  Texas? “I like Texas. I’m not in love with Texas. I have a rule: I like every place I live. One needs to find the best in everything. I like the spring and the fall, but I miss the snow in the wintertime. If you ever want a non-theological proof of the existence of the Lord — it’s living in a blizzard. You suddenly are aware of the small role you play in life. Summer will be … tough.”

    I know I am out of time. But instead of kicking me out, Keefe asks, “OK, what else?”

    Well, what goals are on your to-do list? The list includes the need to fix salaries of the UD faculty and the need to lower the cost of deferred maintenance. “We are not competitive with our peer institutions involving salary.” And that goes for facilities as well. “At UD, we need a state of the art institution.”

    He begins telling a story, one of the first I heard two years ago. It’s about his time as an altar boy and how his mother made him polish his shoes as a sign of pride. He says, “We should polish our own shoes better. We are a quality institution. We need to look like a quality institution.”

    It goes back to his idea about being the dad. There’s a need for sidewalks. There’s a need for more power outlets. There’s a need to fix Carpenter Hall.  “At UD, I am providing whatever I can.”

    He attempts to once again paraphrase the abbot: I want to challenge the strong and protect the weak. Still, paraphrasing does not make the president happy. He remarks, “I will get you that quote later, just leave your email.”

    I have one final question: “President Keefe, where do you see yourself in the next 2 ½ years?”

    He nods and smiles, “I’ll be here at the University of Dallas.”

    Hours later, I check my email. There’s a message from Catherine McCaleb, Keefe’s executive administrative assistant. It is the quote from St. Benedict: “The Abbot must arrange everything so that the strong have something to yearn for, and the weak nothing to run from” (Rule of St. Benedict 64.19).

    2 COMMENTS

    1. That’s an interesting quote from St. Benedict. It sounds similar to Anchises advice to Aeneas: “Spare the conquered, battle down the proud.” I guess the difference is that the Benedict quote supposes that everyone is on the same side, while the Virgil quote is directed to enemies.

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